History-packed ghost towns offer a workout for the imagination


November 04, 1990|By Chris Kaltenbach

Swinging, creaking doors. Tumbleweeds bouncing quietly off darkened lampposts. Whiskey bottles lying empty on their sides in long-deserted saloons. The wind howling through surprisingly well-kept graveyards situated on hilltops just north of town.

Ah, the ghost towns of American lore, settlements that look as though the whole town just got up in the middle of lunch yesterday and left. Houses stand undisturbed by the ravages of time or pillaging neighbors, while handbills posted on the sheriff's door -- which, of course, still plainly says "Sheriff" -- flap in the breeze.

The image is scenic, but unfortunately, not very accurate.

"There's quite a contrast between the Hollywood image of the ghost town and what really is left to be seen," says James E. Sherman, a professor of engineering at Pima College in Tucson who with his wife, Barbara, has written "Ghost Towns of Arizona" and "Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of New Mexico."

"There just is very little left physically of these things that we read about," says Mr. Sherman, whose two-semester Living History of the American Frontier course plays to packed classrooms year after year. "And yet, if you use your imagination when you go out there, it comes to life."

Using Tucson as a launch point, visitors can find plenty of ghost towns within a 100-mile radius, scattered throughout southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Many require four-wheel drive vehicles, topographic maps and a tremendous amount of patience to locate. Three of the best, however, also are the easiest to find Tombstone, Steins and Shakespeare.

Tombstone, Ariz.

Calling Tombstone a ghost town is something of a misnomer - the town has a population of 1,700. But "The Town Too Tough to Die" is home to more than its share of ghosts.

When prospector Al Schieffelin found silver in a valley at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains in 1879, he staked a claim and named it Tombstone -- recalling the taunts of soldiers at Fort Huachuca, who had warned that if he insisted on leaving the safety of the fort, "All you'll find is your tombstone."

Schieffelin never did find his tombstone there (although buried under a stone marker about three miles west of town, he died in 1897 near Canyonville, Ore.) but plenty of other people did. Perhaps none did with more panache than Tom McLowry, Frank McLowry and Billy Clanton, victims of the fabled 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral. All are buried, along with about 250 other men and women, in Boothill graveyard, just north of town.

Visitors to Tombstone may not feel as though they're in the Old West, however. Allen Street, the town's main drag, is mostly gift shops, Western clothing stores and other places where tourists are encouraged to spend their money freely.

"Tombstone is one of those places that has tremendous history, but not very much quality when it comes to interpretation," Mr. Sherman says. "It has tremendous history to it, places that are there that nobody knows of. You kind of have to ferret them out, have the inside dope, to really appreciate it."

The reconstructed OK Corral is off Allen Street; within walking distance are the courthouse, the Crystal Palace saloon, Schieffelin Hall and the Bird Cage Theatre, an original 1881 building (looking every minute its age) that alone is worth the trip to Tombstone.

Reopened in 1934 after being boarded up for nearly 50 years, the Bird Cage retains many of its original furnishings. That includes the faded stage curtain and backdrops, a 9-foot-tall painting (scarred by six bullet holes) of an exotic dancer named Fatima, and the 14 bird cages suspended from the ceiling, from which the town's ladies of the evening advertised their trade.

Tombstone is a tourist trap; most of the town's attractions are in private hands, and serious historic preservationists might shudder at some liberties they have taken. "Refined" and "understated" are not adjectives that come readily to mind in Tombstone.

But who cares? Have fun; you've been reading about the OK Corral all your life -- isn't it a trip to think you're standing on the spot where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday shot down the Clantons? Traipsing through a cemetery with video camera in hand might seem a bit odd, but where else can you find a tombstone that reads, "Here Lies Lester Moore/Four slugs from a .44/No les, no more."

Go ahead and walk into the Crystal Palace, order a shot of sarsaparilla in a dirty glass, down it in one swallow and pound the empty glass onto the bar. The bartender won't mind.

Steins, N.M.

Founded in 1849 and later named for Maj. Enoch Steins, member of the U.S. Dragoons who was killed by the Apaches at nearby Doubtful Canyon, Steins at one time sported two saloons, a dance hall, a constable and a justice of the peace.

But unlike most ghost towns, which rose and fell based on the success of the surrounding mines, Steins owed its existence to the railroad and its predecessor, the stagecoach.

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